Life I’m in Berlin
Where the street food is fantastic, the early-fall light is idyllic in the late afternoon, the ambulance sirens sound straight out of a 1950s film, and the transit system is phenomenal but, like every other indoor space in the city, strangely overheated. (If anyone can explain to me why everybody wears multiple jackets here, even in 75-degree weather—frequently supplemented by boots, scarves, and fleece hats— e-mail me, please). It’s lovely and urban and gritty here, especially in neighborhoods like Kreuzberg , where I’m writing from an Internet cafe called Cafe Mir. (The waitress has been particularly encouraging of my pitiful gestures at German, but I can tell she’s only humoring me).
For the first few nights, we stayed at the UfaFabrik—a slightly threadbare “intentional community”-turned-“international center for culture and ecology” that offers an impressive cultural and educational program, including a circus, outdoor theater, school, adult-education classes, and cafe. (They also have acres of green roofs and extensive clean-energy and recycling programs.) Like many institutions founded the 1970s, the UfaFabrik has seen better days (many members of its “core group,” which got together in 1972 and occupied the patch of land in the Tempelhof-Schoneberg district of Berlin in 1978, still live there) but it’s charming in its rundown way. And I like the idea that living “ecologically” doesn’t always necessitate going “back to the land”—the neighborhood it’s in is resolutely urban, dense and graffiti-covered as the grittiest part of Berlin.
It’s not just the transit that makes cities like Berlin work, although it does make our puny little 14-mile light rail line look pretty pathetic by comparison. (There are also bike lanes everywhere, and you really will get run over if you walk on them, as I learned from several near-misses today). It’s also the incredible heterogeny of cultures in every neighborhood, the wide sidewalks and tall buildings, and the vast array of public and private outdoor space. Just about every building facade conceals a large interior courtyard, and many of these courtyards contain cafes, art spaces, clubs, and other cool stuff. Most of the bars and cafes here include large outdoor areas, often on the sidewalk, despite the fact that Berlin, like Seattle, gets a lot of rain. (It’s also significantly colder in the winter.) So what’s our problem?
One possible reason for the difference, although it hardly explains it on its own, is the fact that Berliners have a relaxed (one local called it “nihilistic”) attitude toward alcohol consumption and nightlife—much unlike Seattle. No one here appears to worry that allowing sidewalk cafes will encourage illegal drinking (one reason it’s hard for bars in Seattle to get a permit to use the sidewalk, or, conversely, for sidewalk cafes to get a liquor license); in fact, everywhere you look are people schlepping down the street drinking beer. The doner kebap stands even sell small (375-mL) bottles of vodka and Jagermeister along with the ubiquitous Turkish sandwiches.
But there’s something else going on, too: People here seem to have a different attitude toward urban life than we do in shy Seattle. Outdoor seating is oriented toward the street, the better to enable people-watching and interaction. Awnings are omnipresent, making it possible to sit on the sidewalk without worrying about the weather. And even in the seedier neighborhoods, people are out at all hours, putting “eyes on the street” and making things feel relatively safe even when the walls are covered with anti-capitalist graffiti and even with a 17 percent unemployment rate. (As far as I can tell, there’s no state-mandated closing time.)
And the food? you ask. It’s excellent, thanks. Since arriving, I’ve consumed my weight in sausage, beer and Turkish meals; according to my guidebook, Berlin has the largest Turkish population outside Istanbul.
I’ll probably post more later, but for now, I’ll leave you with this photo I took of a machine selling small toys for 20 cents. Steve Jobs, consider yourself warned: Someone in Berlin has it in for you.